Should women support Hillary Clinton?
As a progressive, a feminist, and a chick, my support for Clinton is presumed. After all, I have a vagina. So does she. I want to see a woman president. She's a woman. I support choice, reproductive services, expanded women's health care, pay parity. She says she'll deliver all those things.
The thing is, though, so does John Edwards-someone I've supported since well before he became John Kerry's vice-presidential pick in 2004. I like Edwards because he emphasizes poverty, social justice, and ending corporate welfare. Of all the candidates, his positions are most in line with my beliefs. His campaign promises-ending corporate welfare, eliminating tax giveaways to the wealthiest two percent of Americans, implementing a just system of health care for all-are most in line with what I want.
But like almost everyone who is not a straight, white, Christian male, I've dreamed of having someone in the White House who looks like me. This is more than simplistic identity politics. Yes, it's identity politics, but it's not simple.
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We live in a country where identity still, to a huge extent, shapes experience. A black person understands better than me what it's like to experience racism; a gay person understands what it's like to be denied basic rights because of your sexuality. And I feel that we need to put someone in the White House who understands that eight years of George W. Bush has devastated women's status in this country-and who will prioritize putting things right.
Clinton articulated this argument brilliantly October 22 during an appearance in front of the Washington State Democrats at Benaroya Hall. "There are two groups that inspire me to keep going," Clinton said. "One is women in their 90s who come to my events… They all say something like, 'I'm 95 years old. I was born before women could vote in this country and I'm going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.' The other group is the children who come… I see a parent lean over to a daughter and say, 'See, honey? In this country you can be anything you want to be.'"
Cheesy? Trite? Sure. But compelling to many women, including Linda Mitchell, board chair for the Washington State Women's Political Caucus. In a letter to WPC members, Mitchell said that while Clinton's positions on health care, the environment, and choice were appealing, "I'm not going to lie: The reality is that for me, it's time. For the first time we have a strong, viable, qualified woman who CAN be president, who is giving it her all, and who has a real shot at winning. And it's time for feminists to step up and make it happen."
Edie Gillis, political director for Progressive Majority of Washington, has a similar take. She says she supports Clinton not for her political platform-"I'm probably a little more liberal"-but because Clinton is a woman. "All of the little differences between the candidates are meaningless to me," Gillis says. "For me, it's a precedent-setting thing. I just got married, I'm thinking about starting a family, and if I have a daughter, I want to be able to tell her that there's a woman in the White House. It would totally change the way we look at the presidency."
But, again, so would a truly liberal president like John Edwards. After decades of Republican rule, centrism, and triangulation, Edwards promises a return to the progressive tradition on which the Democratic Party was founded. It's hard to turn my back on that possibility. With Edwards trailing in the polls, Clinton is starting to seduce many who are wary of her centrist politics and corporate contributions-including many feminists.
But not all-and with good reason.
Although both Clinton and Edwards voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, only Edwards has fully recanted, saying bluntly in a Washington Post op-ed: "I was wrong." His emphasis on poverty and improving the living conditions of all Americans would disproportionately benefit women, who make up the bulk of those living in poverty and earning the minimum wage. He has also been more explicit about which taxes he would raise to keep the deficit under control: He would eliminate Bush's tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than around $200,000 a year. And he would increase taxes on capital gains and windfall profits taxes on oil companies.
Two prominent feminist bloggers-Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare's Sister-have been vocal about their support for Edwards and lack of enthusiasm for Clinton. Back in February, after the Edwards campaign hired both Marcotte and McEwan, the pair came under fire by religious-right bigot Bill Donohue for being "anti-Catholic." After several days of indecision from the Edwards campaign, both women resigned. However, both Marcotte and McEwan have maintained their support for Edwards, asserting that he better represents the interests of women and progressives.
McEwan argues that because Edwards has daughters and a wife, Elizabeth, whose health-care needs are greater than most Americans', he "has nearly as much reason to be as keen on women's issues as… Hillary, who is also no doubt motivated by her daughter's needs in the future." She points to a 2005 study by researchers at Yale University that found that male politicians with daughters were actually more likely to focus on "women's issues" than female candidates. And, McEwan continues, "I'm not going to support a female Democrat just because she's a woman. Hillary is an especially tough case for me, because I really, really like her as a person… But some of her positions, and particularly her corporatism, rub me completely the wrong way."
Me, too-to the point that, until recently, I said I'd only support Clinton if she got the nomination, and only grudgingly. But my old childhood fantasy-the idea that, in my lifetime, a woman could be president-is pushing me slowly in Clinton's direction.
Putting Hillary Clinton in the White House would change presidential priorities. Yes, Edwards has a pro-choice platform-Barack Obama too. Yes, both believe in expanding family and medical leave and implementing policies that close the pay gap between men and women. In fact, on most issues that matter to women in particular, the three frontrunners hold virtually identical positions.
But although Edwards and Obama may agree with Clinton on many things, I believe that-as a progressive woman-Clinton would be far more likely to prioritize women and children than any candidate who has never been a woman or a mother. No, a President Condoleezza Rice or Elizabeth Dole wouldn't prioritize women; in fact, they'd probably roll back women's rights to please the sexist, retrograde, increasingly fundamentalist base of the party they belong to. But Clinton's a Democrat. Moreover, she's made women's issues the cornerstone of her campaign. To say she'll make them the cornerstone of her presidency isn't sexism; it's pragmatism.
Women's issues matter in this election-perhaps more than at any other time in the last 30 years. During his years as president, George W. Bush has dramatically eroded the rights of women and children at home and abroad. On his first day in office, Bush signed the "global gag rule," denying U.S. aid to any organization that provides abortions or information about abortions (responding to patients' questions about their options, for example)-a decision that has led to the dismantling of reproductive services around the world, and to countless deaths worldwide. He supported the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, and appointed two of the Supreme Court justices who subsequently upheld it as the law of the land. He pressured the FDA to bar the over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception, ignoring the recommendations of two FDA panels. He supported legislation that would redefine embryos as "individuals" with the same human rights as living people. He promoted misleading and inaccurate abstinence-only education programs whose only effect was to reduce the number of sexually active teens who use birth control. He even appointed an anti-contraception activist to head the federal family-planning office.
Because these are women's issues, it makes sense that a woman candidate would view them as her issues. And Clinton does. It's why she has spoken out against countries that ignore human trafficking and forced prostitution. It's why she sponsored legislation that would make family-planning services, including emergency contraception, more accessible to low-income women and require insurance companies to pay for birth control. It's why she supported allowing pharmacies to sell EC over the counter (and blocked confirmation of the new FDA chief until it was approved). It's why she introduced a bill that would make EC available to all women in America's armed services. It's why she opposed the noxious "global gag rule." It's why she sponsored legislation aimed at ending the pay gap between men and women. It's why she wants to implement a universal pre-kindergarten program. It's why she wants to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act and implement paid maternity-leave programs in every state by 2016. It's why she wants to require all health-care companies to cover prescription birth control in their plans. It's why she wants to outlaw "maternal profiling"-the practice in some companies of making pay and promotion decisions based on the assumption that women will have babies.
And it's why she's said things like, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."
Republicans lambasted Clinton for her cookie comment in 1992.
In the 15 years since, they've elevated Clinton to a sort of superstar villain, a malevolent bogeywoman who personifies all their darkest fears. At a recent Republican debate in Florida, the Republican presidential hopefuls couldn't stop talking about Clinton-to the point that they hardly spent any time at all talking about their own campaigns. Mitt Romney said Clinton "hasn't even run a corner store." Rudy Giuliani said America "can't afford" a Clinton presidency. And John McCain made a crack about her proposal to fund a Woodstock museum, saying, "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event."
In attacking Clinton, her critics on the right reveal how ugly, sexist, and antiwoman they really are. When she speaks in support of expanded civil rights, including adoption rights, for gays and lesbians, they insinuate that she's gay. When she fails to dress in Armani, à la Nancy Pelosi, they attack her for being "dowdy." When she doesn't act appropriately feminine, they call her a "man." (In fairness, they also call Obama and Edwards women.) When Michelle Obama makes an aside that "if you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House," the right-wing noise machine turns it into a manufactured "catfight."
When Clinton campaigns aggressively, they compare her to a "hellish housewife" who "just won't stop nagging you." When she doesn't come down hard enough on an issue, they insist that she isn't aggressive enough to be president. They accuse her of trotting out a manufactured "maternal" side. They even try to make her look like an ice queen for giving away her cat. And finally, when they have nothing else to say, they criticize her laugh-sorry, make that "cackle." Anyone who inspires this much hysteria among Republicans is all right with me.
On the other hand, some women argue that the very reason I like Clinton is reason enough to ditch her. Many women (and men) describe her as "divisive," and call her (despite polls that show her with a solid lead among Democrats and some support among Republican women) "the only Democrat who could lose this election." Sue Evans, media relations coordinator for Pyramid Communications and a Democrat, says that while she doesn't "think anybody questions Hillary's ability to do the job, it's the fear of not getting the White House back after what this country has been through that's the concern. I want the White House."
And many smart, liberal women who support candidates other than Clinton make a good point: She isn't as progressive as some of her fellow frontrunners. She supported the Defense of Marriage Act. She cosponsored the flag-burning amendment. And she supported legislation that some say opens the door for military action in Iran.
Like many liberals, I'm disturbed by all those votes, but here's where I run into a big "But." Democrats of late could not be accused of making the perfect the enemy of the good. We nominated John Kerry, for fuck's sake, and supported him wholeheartedly. So are we holding Clinton to a higher standard, and if so, can we see beyond her gender to her electability and fitness to govern? And are we, as women, holding Clinton to an unattainable standard? As Clinton supporter Mitchell puts it, "If not now, then when? If we're waiting for the perfect woman candidate, we're never going to get a woman president." City Council Member Sally Clark, a recent Clinton convert, thinks Clinton may "get called 'shrill,' a 'shrew,' and a 'bitch' because she's aggressive and knows what she wants and is really focused. It's not like she gets up on the platform and rages."
Feminist writers and political activists have debated themselves to death about whether being a woman means supporting Clinton. I don't think it does. As a woman, however, I believe Clinton will do right by me on issues that matter to women-which is an entirely different thing than supporting a candidate because of her gender.
I'll still support Edwards if he gets the nomination-an outcome that seems less and less likely in light of the Clinton juggernaut. But if it's Clinton, I'll support her enthusiastically. As a feminist and a woman, I'm ready to see someone who shares my values and my gender in the White House. It's about time.
This article was originally published in The Stranger.